Peterborough, ON based studio furniture maker Rob Brown on dovetails, his hatred of red oak and making furniture that tells a story.
Q & A with Rob Brown
How long have you been building furniture?
About 25 years
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
Studio furniture that tells a story
Tell us a couple interesting things about your personal life
I cycle more kilometers than I drive a car
If you were not a furniture maker what would you be?
Wealthier, but less in love with my work
In order, what are the three most important items in your shop apron?
Mechanical pencil, 6″ metal rule, 10′ tape measure
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Whichever is best for the job
Figured wood or straight grain?
Both have their time and place
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
I don’t discriminate. A good tool is a good tool.
Solid wood or veneer?
It’s like asking which kid I prefer. Who wrote these questions, anyway?
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Usually flowing curves
I love working with a variety of woods
Least favourite wood?
Easy. Red oak. Splinters, nasty smell, all-too-common wild look. Yuck. If it’s quarter cut it’s bearable.
Power carved from black cherry, this side table was inspired by the natural form of the ginkgo leaf. This is one of a few leaf tables Brown has made.
Bonsai Shoji Screen
Once the shoji frame was complete and the white background paper was adhered to the frame, Brown applied different coloured hand-made Japanese papers on top of the white to form the pattern of the tree.
Jatoba Whiskey Cabinet
During the design process Brown wasn't pleased with the four-sided cabinet he designed. After seeing a hexagon in passing, he realized making a six-sided cabinet would be a lot more interesting to view. It was made with solid jatoba, while the panels were made from curly anigre veneer.
Quotes from Rob Brown
My 400 sq. ft. shop is in my backyard. It sure beats my previous shop, which was in the basement of an old house in Toronto. It had ceilings under 6" high. I'm lucky I'm short.
My daily routine varies quite a bit. It's split about equally between editing the magazine and building furniture. Mix taking care of two young kids, ensuring the dog stays out of trouble and sneaking out to ride one of my bikes on a sunny day and you know everything there is to know.
The ugliest piece of furniture I've ever made was for a client who knew almost exactly what they wanted. It was a tall side table with a few drawers, and the proportions were awful. It was so ugly and I've never shown anyone a photo of it. I was too desperate for work to turn it down.
I love power carving. Removing wood quickly, and in different planes, is a lot of fun. Watching the grain change as you cut deeper into the wood is very satisfying.
I wish woodworkers and the general public could get over their fear of veneer. Most of the very best pieces of furniture made today involve at least a fair amount of it. I also wish woodworkers would stop using figured wood in place of good design.
I think through and half blind dovetail joints are overused and overvalued. I think the sliding dovetail joint is underused and undervalued.
In the perfect world I would enter my shop, lock the door, turn off the phone, turn on some music and build whatever I want. And someone would show up the day I finished it to offer me lots of money for it, of course.
Do yourself a favor and check out Marc Fish's work. Then Google Tokunaga, Brian Newell, Edward Johnson and David Upfill-Brown. I always loved James Krenov's theory and approach, but I was never a big fan of his finished work. I always found it a bit boring and all too similar.
Ninety-nine percent of the time the design is paramount to the materials. I rarely get a lot of inspiration from the materials.
I usually start with a pretty solid idea in my head of what the piece will look like, but things can always change. I start with a surprisingly well-thought-out idea almost entirely in my head, and then refine it with full-size drawings and models as well as a to-scale maquette.
I like telling a story with my work. This is something I've done more recently than in years past. When it comes to telling a story with a piece of furniture, I have to mention Meredith Nicole's "Tank Table". The table is well made and beautifully designed, but it's not until you realize than the inlaid silver armored tank firing on one side of the table is shooting what turns out to be poppies on another surface. It's a play on war, peace and our collective history – how often do you see this in a piece of furniture?
Speaking of telling stories with furniture, I've been working on a project for the last eight years, and if all goes well I'll be able to share some of that work soon.
I know the general consensus is that it's only doom and gloom in the woodworking world of the future, but I'm not so sure. I guessing there are many more studio furniture makers now than even 30 years ago. And access to woodworking knowledge, machinery and tools is also at an all-time high.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.
I’ve watched your “6 Tips For Adding Texturing To Wood” video on YouTube several times. It’s very inspirational. I am making a table for my daughter-in-law and am considering using some of the textural techniques you demonstrated. In particular, at 3:40 of the video you make a circular pattern. Can you tell me what tool you are using and what bit. I have a Dremel and a ruby bit but it doesn’t seem to cut as effortlessly as you show in the video. Would love your advice. And, lastly, your work is very impressive and inspiring. Making me think about carving as technique to add “personality” to all kinds of project. I’m a retire seventy-year-old carpenter who’s finally getting serious time in the workshop. Thanks, David